Miguel Arteta’s Cedar Rapids is a coming of age story, and yet it features not a single child character. At least, not a child in the literal sense of the word. It does, however, feature Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), an insurance agent. Already in his late thirties, he has never flown on a plane, never stayed in a hotel, and never travelled beyond the limits of his small Wisconsin town. He is a total innocent, and that makes him funny, if not downright hilarious. But he’s also sincere, and that makes him surprisingly compelling. It’s impossible not to like him; he may not always know what’s going on or why, but he’s moral, friendly, and caring, and he values his job and what he thinks it stands for. He believes he’s providing a valuable service, much like the agent who handled his family’s affairs when his father died in a sawmill accident.
Not long ago, I saw the new Adam Sandler rom-com Just Go with It, which was so dreadful that it made me question the current status of the American comedy. Cedar Rapids has reaffirmed my faith. Not only is it funny, but it also bothers to tell a story, one that, in its own twisted way, is sweet and insightful. The characters are quirky, and yet they’re not merely defined by their quirks; they have discernable personalities and exhibit relatable strengths and weaknesses. The more I think about this film, the more baffling it is that Phil Johnston’s screenplay placed fifth on 2009’s Black List, an annual ranking of popular unproduced screenplays in Hollywood circles. Why did no one believe it was worth producing immediately?
In the film, Tim is pushed out of his comfort zone when he’s sent as a replacement agent to an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The previous agent (Thomas Lennon) died as a result of autoerotic asphyxiation; it’s now Tim’s responsibility to compete for a prestigious insurance trophy, one his company has won consecutively for the past several years. When he first arrives, he meets a prostitute named Bree (Alia Shawkat), who in code asks him for a cigarette. Unaware of her intentions, he explains to her that he doesn’t smoke, so he happy offers her a butterscotch hard candy instead. In the hotel, he’s surprised to learn that his roommate, Ronald, is black. I will not say that Tim is racist, but his initial reaction to Ronald suggests astonishing ignorance. Ronald is played by Isaih Whitlock, Jr., who also appeared in HBO’s The Wire; a recurring gag is of Ronald doing impressions of Omar, the series’ stick-up man.
Against the orders of his superior, Bill (Stephen Root), Tim begins consorting with a convention veteran named Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a man so overbearing, boozy, loud, and inappropriate that there are times when he deserves to be punched dead in the face. As the film progresses, both Tim and the audience learn that he’s also the best friend anyone could ever hope to have. He may party too hard. He may be a failure as a husband and father. He may even tell a few too many filthy jokes (you do not want to know the punchline for, “What do you call an anorexic with a yeast infection?”). But he has your back, and if you ask him to keep something a secret, it will remain a secret. This character would be reprehensible if he weren’t written to continually defy the awfulness he projects.
Tim has an affair with Joan (Anne Heche), another convention veteran. She has travelled the world, has a family, and is fully aware that she must make the most of what life has dealt her. Her actions would in all likelihood hurt her husband, who’s never seen. Even so, one gets the sense that, in this moment in time, she’s getting exactly what she needs out of this business trip. Tim, on the other hand, becomes consumed with guilt, for he has a girlfriend back at home – his former elementary school teacher, Marcy (Sigourney Weaver). During one of the film’s best scenes, the two engage in a phone conversation, one that demonstrates Marcy’s role as a mother figure; as skewed as this scenario seems, the advice she eventually gives him proves to be some of the best he has ever received.
As the film nears the end, we watch as the characters evolve. This presents itself in two fascinating ways. One is reflected in the personalities of the three male leads; Tim must learn that it’s okay to have fun, Dean must learn to keep his mouth in check, and Ronald must learn to unwind every once in a while. The other is a convergence of sorts; as the men develop separately, they form a single functional unit, as if each man represented one distinct part of the mind. Apart, they’re deeply flawed, but together, they’re highly efficient. As a part of a whole, Tim discovers what was missing from his life, and in the process finally spreads his wings and learns how to fly. I had hopes that Cedar Rapids would be entertaining, but never did I expect it to be this thought-provoking. I love it when movies surprise me.
'Cedar Rapids' directed by Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) is the story of an incredibly naive insurance agent Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) who's spent his entire life in the little town of Brown Valley Wisconsin. He's 34 years old, has never been on an airplane or stayed in a hotel. He's the guy that people always thought would go places, but then, he just...didn't. That soon changes when his boss at Brown Star Insurance, Bill Krogstad (Stephen Root) dispatches … more
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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